ROSEMONT,ILL — ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Poor Frank Robinson. It was just his luck that he was scheduled for a news conference at the same time the Toronto Blue Jays and San Diego Padres announced the most significant trade of the free-agent era.
The Orioles manager leaned against a wall as reporters crowded into a conference room at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare. Upon hearing the announcement, only one word passed his lips:
Indeed, a collective gasp filled the room as Padres general manager Joe McIlvaine gleefully recited the deal -- outfielder Joe Carter and second baseman Roberto Alomar to Toronto for first baseman Fred McGriff and shortstop Tony Fernandez.
"We thought we'd give you a good old-fashioned baseball trade," McIlvaine said, beaming.
"You don't make too many trades these days," added McIlvaine's Toronto colleague, Pat Gillick. "This place feels more like a Swiss bank than the Hyatt hotel."
Robinson, though, would have preferred a few more million-dollar signings of mediocre players to yesterday's blockbuster -- and how nice it is to use that word again, especially when it carries genuine meaning.
When the news conference ended, Robinson cried to Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, "Thanks, Cito. Thanks, buddy."
"Have a nice winter," Gaston replied.
"Sleepless winter," Robinson muttered.
Then Robinson turned on San Diego assistant general manager John Barr, the Orioles' scouting director until the end of last season.
"Thanks to you!" Robinson shouted. "You couldn't wait to stick it to us, could you? Take that, O's!"
Robinson was kidding -- we think -- but he was as captivated by the trade as everyone else. The deal appears to favor the Padres at first glance, but as McIlvaine said, "It will be discussed and discussed and discussed."
For good reason. The four players are among the game's best (surprisingly, Carter and McGriff have never been All-Stars). Not a single minor-league player cluttered the deal.
Here's the truly incredible part: The entire negotiation took less than 24 hours to complete, a stunning achievement in this era of long-term contracts, no-trade clauses and front-office procrastination.
This was a perfect match -- each team disturbed by its history of underachievement, each anxious for a fresh start. The implications of the trade are wide-ranging, fascinating, complex.
Gillick, once nicknamed "Stand Pat" for his reluctance to make deals, needed less than two months to completely overhaul the Blue Jays, who will be barely recognizable next Opening Day.
McIlvaine, sharply criticized for his role in breaking up the New York Mets, wasted no time filling a massive hole at shortstop and finding a replacement for new-look free agent Jack Clark.
Statistically speaking, the trade looks balanced:
Alomar, 22, batted .287 with six homers, 60 RBIs and 24 stolen bases last season. Fernandez, 28, batted .276 with four homers, 66 RBIs and 26 steals. Spooky, huh? Each is a switch-hitter as well.
Carter, 30, has averaged 29 homers and 109 RBIs the past five years; McGriff, 27, has averaged 35 homers and 87 RBIs the past three (the key difference might be on-base percentage -- .400-.290 last season in favor of McGriff).
Those who think Gillick was taken point not only to the loss of McGriff, but the likely departure of his other top run-producer, free-agent outfielder George Bell. Many, however, suspect the Blue Jays will now attempt to sign Clark.
As it stands, they might already be a better team, if not a better collection of individuals.
The infield will consist of John Olerud at first, Alomar at second, Manny Lee (or top prospect Eddie Zosky) at shortstop and Kelly Gruber at third. The outfield will consist of Carter in right, Devon White in center and Mookie Wilson, Mark Whiten and Glenallen Hill in left.
Two free agents, Rance Mulliniks (re-signed) and Pat Tabler (from the New York Mets), will share the DH spot. The bullpen has improved with the addition of free-agent lefthander Ken Dayley.
It's a younger team, a faster team and -- most important -- better defensively. True, Fernandez's glove will be missed, but his moodiness will not. And consider this thought: No more adventures with Bell in left or Junior Felix in right.
San Diego still has holes, most notably at third base and in the outfield. But McIlvaine reportedly is considering another trade that would send versatile Bip Roberts to Kansas City for outfielder Danny Tartabull. He also is pursuing Orioles third baseman Craig Worthington.
Whatever happens next, it won't compare to yesterday's sizzler. The clubs met three times in two days, and McIlvaine said the atmosphere was nothing short of electric.
"In fact, we were almost laughing at each other," McIlvaine said. "We started talking about those names and said, 'Oh geez, we're really getting up there.' But the more we talked about it, the more it made sense."